Romanian Cuisine — Sarmale: Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Romanian cuisine is, if you were to guess solely based on our earlier features rosii umplute cu vinete (eggplant-stuffed tomatoes) and ardei umpluţi (stuffed bell peppers), centered entirely around stuffing things with other things.  This, of course, could not be further from the truth, and while a Romanian cook does hold a certain love for stuffing, the cuisine is as varied as any.  Countless roasted meats, stews, soups, salads, vegetable dishes, breads, and dumplings have made their way into Romania through the Italian, Central European, Russian, Greek, and Turkish influences on the culture.  That said, when deciding what to feature next we could not look past sarmale, stuffed cabbage rolls (recipe follows).

More Romanian dishes on The World Cup of Food:

Sarmale are probably Turkish in origin (and most certainly are in name at least), but Romanian cooks have put their own stamp on the dish.  Sour cabbage leaves, a product widely available in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, give the preparation a Romanian stamp, along with the tomato and cabbage sauce that the sarmale are baked in.  The cabbage leaves are stuffed with a similar mixture to the Romanian stuffed peppers: ground meat and bacon, onions, rice, and parsley.  They sound great and we couldn’t wait to try them.


adapted from the excellent The Art of Romanian Cooking by Galia Sperber (Amazon associate link) and the equally excellent Romanian-Canadian food blogger Jo’s recipe on Jo Cooks.

  • 1 small to medium head green cabbage
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 3 c water
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 2 slices smoked bacon
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/3 c white rice
  • 1/3 c water
  • 1 small handful parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 3 Tbs tomato paste
  • 4 c water
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 6 Roma tomatoes, sliced
  • sour cream thinned with a little milk, to serve

We knew that sour cabbage — cabbage that has been lightly fermented in brine, where the production of lactic acid gives it a sour taste — might be hard to come by, so to that end we tried to emulate it the best we could by marinating cabbage leaves in a vingar-water solution for several minutes.  First, to get the leaves off our cabbage (hopefully without too much damage):


…we cored it with a paring knife:


…then carefully peeled away the leaves one by one, taking care not to tear them to the point that they would be rendered unstuffable:

The centermost leaves, too small to be stuffed, will be used later.

The leaves were dropped gently into a large pot of boiling, salted water:


…where they were simmered until just tender enough to be manipulated and folded, about two minutes or less:


The cabbage leaves were put into a bowl and covered with the vinegar and three cups of water for about an hour.  After the soak they had a mildly sour flavor, which was what we wanted in order to mimic the sour cabbage used in Romania.

While the cabbage was soaking we worked on our stuffing.  We put one of our trusty cast-iron skillets on medium low heat with just a teaspoon or so of oil to coat the cooking surface.  Then, when it was hot, we added the finely chopped bacon:


…and sauteed, stirring frequently, until the bacon was starting to crisp, about five minutes.  Next went in the onions:


…which were gently sauteed until just beginning to change color, another three or four minutes:


Next the rice was added.  The rice was sauteed with the rest of the ingredients until it began to take on a chalky white color on the outside and the grains were fully coated in fat:


Still on the heat, 1/3 cup of hot water was stirred in as quickly as possible, then the pan was covered and taken off the heat where it was left undisturbed for the rice to absorb the water for about fifteen minutes:

An astute reader might notice that this is the lid for our stockpot, not for our trusty cast-iron skillet. Whatever works.

Once the stuffing mixture had rested long enough we were ready to put it together with the meat.  Into a mixing bowl, first went in the meat:


Then the rest of the ingredients and the chopped parsley were added and mixed thoroughly by hand:


To get ready for the finished cabbage rolls, we lined the bottom of our large Pyrex baking dish with the tomato slices:


Then we were ready to start stuffing some cabbage!  Starting with the largest leaves:


…the still-a-bit-rigid core section was cut away:


Romanian sarmale are pretty small, so we cut the largest leaves in half before stuffing:


Each leaf had about two tablespoons of stuffing dropped on top, then the cabbage was folded over to make little spring roll-shaped bundles:


Once we had used all the stuffable-sized cabbage leaves (figuring that it would be okay to have some bite-sized sarmale made from the smallish ones), the sarmale were lined in the baking dish over the tomato slices.  The leaves that were too small to stuff were rolled up and sliced thinly, then sprinkled over the sarmale in the pan to add to the cooking sauce.

Speaking of sauce, now that the hard work was finished we needed one.  About a tablespoon of oil was heated over medium-low heat in the same trusty cast-iron skillet we used for the stuffing ingredients, then when the oil was hot we added the tomato paste and started stirring:


The tomato paste was stirred into the oil over the heat until it was smoothly incorporated into the oil and started to darken slightly, about a minute or so:


The chopped garlic went in next, and the sauce base was stirred and sauteed until the garlic was fragrant and the tomato paste had darkened further, about another two minutes longer:


The lemon juice was next:


…followed immediately by the four cups of water.  Everything was stirred to combine and brought back to a simmer, then the thin sauce was poured over the sarmale in the baking dish:


Our sarmale were now ready for the oven:


Not expecting the sauce to turn out so thin and runny, Chris had come up with a fix.  Our sources all covered the baking dish with either foil or a lid, then baked their sarmale in a 350 degree over for one hour or so.  Instead, we decided to bake uncovered.  Furthermore, to more rapidly bring the cooking liquid to a simmer, Chris thought it wise to turn the oven up to 500 degrees for the first ten minutes of cooking, then lowering back down to 350 to finish for the rest of the time.  What he did not account for was that he would forget to turn the oven down.  Our sarmale were exposed to 500 degree heat for about thirty-five minutes before the problem was noticed, and as a result, after the hour-and-a-half bake were a little crispy on top:


Luckily we had used large enough cabbage leaves to fully wrap the bottoms, so they could still be served bottom side up.  The sarmale were garnished with a stewed tomato slice and a little shredded cabbage from the roasting pan and some thinned sour cream:


Even though the now-bottom of our sarmale were a bit overdone, the meat filling was tender and moist and fully penetrated with cabbage and tomato flavor.  The cool, tangy sour cream complemented the rich, savory cabbage rolls.  Sarmale are very inexpensive, and for a primarily meat-based dish were packed with vegetables and vitamins.  We have already began craving sarmale again and will be sure to make them soon.


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